Ana Menendez Ana Menendez

Putting pen to paper: creative writing for academics

In Culture
Written by  Hanna Mclean Thursday, 27 June 2013 08:54
When given the opportunity to coordinate a fine art minor at Maastricht University and introduce one of the first academic creative writing courses in the Netherlands,the Pushcart Prizewinning novelist Ana Menéndez couldn’t say no. “This was a chance to rethink things and take a more European approach. It was exciting to consider how we might offer this programme to people who are interested in writing, but who come from different academic or cultural backgrounds”, Menéndez reflects.

A journalist and novelist born in Los Angeles to Cuban immigrants, Menéndez comes from a mixed cultural background herself and is no stranger to the power of creative writing. “I loved to tell stories when I was young. I would embellish them to make people laugh. Those who come to writing usually discover the power of storytelling early on.”

Breaking the mould

Coming from a family of doctors and lawyers, Menéndez followed a different path and chose to study English literature during her undergraduate studies in Florida. “I started to panic about what I was going to do with my degree,” she explains. “I took a journalism course and my professor recommended me for a job at the Miami Herald. I applied and got it. It was with a lot of luck that I became a journalist.”
But Menéndez knew deep down that it was fiction she loved. Eventually she left journalism to get her master’s degree in fine arts, a choice that would bring many benefits. Several years and four books later, Menéndez is at an exciting point in her career. Following a two-year period in Amsterdam where her partner was teaching as a professor, Menéndez found herself browsing online for work when she saw the job opening in Maastricht. “It sounded interesting”, she said. “We both loved the Netherlands and thought, ‘why not?’”

Creative writing at a glance

As a novelist, Menéndez applies her own experiences to create a unique teaching style that students appreciate. “I talk about problems and successes that I’ve had as a writer”, she says. “I think the students feel that this brings a new level of understanding that helps them in their own work. As a teacher it gives me humility and appreciation for how difficult the work is.”
The course, however, isn’t all about writing. The students spend a large chunk of their time reading. “Learning how to read for depth is important. The first step towards being a writer is learning how to read and love doing it.”
What is her goal for the course? “I want students to retain a sense of awe towards art, because it’s something that must be worked at. I’m a stoic that way, in that art is something that one works at with joy. I want students to come away with a sense of the effort that goes into writing and the understanding of why that effort cannot show.”
“I also don’t want to harm the students”, she continues. “I don’t want to become so scholarly that students lose the ineffable joy that comes from reading and writing.”

Come one, come all

Along with a new approach to writing, the class also welcomes all students. “The only requirement is that students be interested. All of us working on this programme agreed there should be a component of translation involved and that it should be open to everyone. A classroom is more dynamic when you have people from a variety of different backgrounds.”
With these criteria in place, the class has proven to be useful even for scientists and researchers. Sharpening one’s critical reading skills, according to Menéndez,is something everyone can benefit from. “If you’re a researcher who loves to read then the course can deepen that love”, she explains. “Also, students will be able to clearly communicate their thoughts, explain themselves, and be precise. We stress concreteness. Avoid the abstract.”
While scientific and creative writing are two different things and the course won’t make you a better scientist, it will help you organise your thoughts. “Writing is another way of thinking. I’d love to have more scientists in the class because there’s been this divergence of the sciences and arts for a long time and we need both sides to be informed about what the other is doing. I’d love to see scientists bring in different kinds of issues, problems and stories that we could work on together.”

Planning ahead

With the first year of the programme behind her, Menéndez looks forward to continuing her work at the university and focusing on her own writing as well. “We had fantastic students this year. It was a diverse group with half a dozen native languages from all over Europe and the Middle East. I learned about the ways that language can unite and also divide. I also learned what it means to have a native language and what it means to take a course like this in English, which is interesting because I’m a hybrid myself.”

Ana Menéndez (1970) is the coordinator of the new creative writing course at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University.She has written four books of fiction and her work has appeared in various publications, including Vogueand Gourmet Magazine.She has a BA in English from Florida International University and an MFA from New York University.

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